On a raucous Halloween in the Nation’s Capital, Neko Case dressed like Adam Ant, but sang like a tomboy angel. On this tour, with a show built on her front catalogue — particularly her career-highlight The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You — seeing Neko perform is a combination of listening to our favorite singer backed by ace musicians and our favorite writer read from her best short stories. For by now, this is what Neko Case has become: no longer simply the girl with the gorgeous twang, but Flannery O’Connor with a backup band. Last night, it worked to a fare-thee-well.
When she released 2004’s The Tigers Have Spoken, Neko’s live sound was an Americana counterpart to her work with the New Pornographers — upbeat, occasionally straight-ahead rock’n’roll with gorgeous country tones. Even given how Blacklisted showed darkly comic and American gothic literary sensibilities, the Neko of that long-ago era was less complex, her music alternating between the Arizona desert sounds of her Calexico collaborators and her natural home as an Alt.country belter. By Middle Cyclone, though, Neko had become maybe the most fascinating lyricist since Dylan, wildly ambitious, her words as complex now as her music, her gift for writing equal to her gift for singing. Last night brought a full measure of this later, more mature Neko Case, and it was fine.
The only song we really yearned for that we didn’t hear was “Prison Girls,” but that’s a trifle. From gorgeous versions of “The Tigers Have Spoken” and “Calling Cards,” which showed off the delicacy of a band led by Jon Rauhouse to full effect, to the flat-out thunder of “I’m A Man,” we were treated to all our favorite late-period Neko songs, sung in close harmony with Kelly Hogan. We could have stood to hear something other than a pair of Heart songs for the encore. But as we stumbled out onto a U Street filled with goblins and witches, Neko’s baroque landscape seemed almost normal, and a great place to spend a few hours.